Last week Amazon did something despicable. They violated the privacy of every Kindle user when without warning they remotely deleted copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from Kindle Readers. It seems that Amazon had determined these books had been purchased "illegally." (The irony of choosing these particular books goes without saying.)
This set off a firestorm of protest and criticism aimed directly at Amazon and raised some very serious questions about electronic books (and electronic content) in general. If it could be deleted or even altered, what could that do to the integrity of the written word?
My colleague Steve J Vaughn-Nichols, a writer whom I've written about many times in the past thinks this is grounds for never buying another eBook. I'm not sure it warrants a reaction that strong (although I certainly understand it), but it does say something about what can happen when large corporations like Amazon have complete control of our content.
Who's Content is it Anyway?
When you buy a paper book, you own it, period end. Neither the publisher nor the book seller can come to your house and alter, delete or take it from you. It's yours. When you buy something in digital form, however, what you are buying typically is a license to use the content. Unlike the paper book, you don't own it in a concrete sense. Many of us who have grown up with the paper variety, find this power afforded to owners of that license chilling.
If you buy any content, whether it's an MP3 or a movie or whatever, you should be able to make a backup copy, which you can read on any device. The trouble with the Kindle approach is that Amazon is selling the Reader and they are selling eBooks, which can be read only on their readers and nobody else's, and that's where this problem lies.
Open Readers Anyone?
If some smart entrepreneur wants to take the eBook market storm, here's what they should do. First come up with an open eBook format. This would mean every eBook would be readable on every reader making it device-independent and taking that power that Amazon holds with their approach out of the equation. Secondly I would create a low-cost reader that can read these open eBooks, and I would convince everyone else that a standard eBook format is in the best interest of everyone (except maybe Amazon). It would be up to the Reader manufacturer to add whatever additional value they saw fit to differentiate themselves from the market. (It is worth noting that there a number of competing attempts in play to create an open eBook standard, but so far none has gained wide traction so far as I know.)
Amazon Did Back Down
It should be duly noted that by the end of the same day, Amazon backed down and said it was changing its system and this type of intrusion would not happen again. Great, as far as it goes, but the deed was done and what would make Kindle owners believe them just because they said it. The fact was they did it, and with it they revealed the great power they have over content we thought we had bought and paid for.
Unlike Vaughan-Nichols I'm not quite ready to abandon the eBook format just yet, but I would like to find a company other than Amazon or Google to write an open specification and let the market forces drive it into widespread use. If we as consumers demand it, and make it clear with our wallets, the eBook makers will have little choice but to comply. For now, I'm with SJVN on one point. I won't buy a Kindle, and before I buy a Reader, I'm waiting for the market to open up.